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Gallipoli Memories: Major John North & Sir Compton Mackenzie

My interest in the Gallipoli prisoners of war was prompted, years ago, by a passage in Major John North’s book Gallipoli: The Fading Vision (1936).

‘In the unromantic Australian official history the only mention of Troy is that of a private soldier of the name, born in the severely unclassical location of Geraldton, Western Australia. He happened to be the only survivor of a desperate action in a gully adjacent to Dead Man’s Ridge known as Bloody Angle, where he was knocked senseless by a bomb, and in this fearsome vicinity awoke to find himself among the dying and the dead.

‘I believe that the middle-aged Australian whom Mr Compton Mackenzie met in Alexandria soon after the first landings put the campaign in a more general perspective from the point of view of a contemporary. He reported that all he knew was that he jumped out of a bloody boat in the dark and before he had walked five bloody yards he had copped a bloody bullet in his foot and had been pushed back to bloody Alexandria almost before he bloody well knew he had left it. (p. 19)

I was intrigued then not so much by North’s history of the campaign, but by the impact that a visit to Gallipoli in 1926 had on him – ‘from the moment I set foot on the waste soil of that lonely bay the Peninsula held me in thrall.’ The fading vision he refers to, is his attempt, in the book, to capture some of that deep connection he first felt, as well as telling ‘one of the great stories of the world.’

North writes towards the end of his book: ‘Even those who return to the Peninsula to keep an appointment with the dead intrude upon its loneliness, its emptiness, its shattering silence. However, perhaps it is not upon Gallipoli that they intrude. Gallipoli is no longer a narrow neck of land set in the blue or the grey of the sea. If it is anything at all, it is a country of the mind.’ (p. 360)

It took five visits to Gallipoli over a decade and some ‘homeopathic’ treatment of a visit to the Western Front battlefields before North felt able to tell the Gallipoli narrative, and see whether it was more than ‘senseless horror and sacrifice’, and whether the classical location across the straits from Troy was part of his original emotional connection. North wonders whether the ‘classical’ connection – the Trojan War and all that – had something to do with it

My own experience mirrored North’s seventy years later – told, with others, in my book An Australian Odyssey: From Giza to Gallipoli (1997). I still wonder whether the hold Gallipoli as is because for Australians and New Zealanders the story (Bean’s story) has become our classical narrative, our own long ago Trojan War, more or less in the same location … a double ‘classical’ connection, perhaps. There were plenty of educated soldiers of all nationalities in the First World War, at Gallipoli and Palestine, and again 25 years later in Greece and Crete, Libya and Lebanon who did see some connection.

But here, with North,  ‘All classical opiates will, therefore, be absent from this volume; the snows of Ida will go unsung. ‘

Compton Mackenzie’s Gallipoli Memories (1929) contains a number of wry observations of Australians he met in Egypt and Gallipoli. Mackenzie warmed to the middle-aged Australian ‘who was the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.’ (pp 20-21)

He quotes the Digger: “You know? I couldn’t bring myself to go back, and then I met … oh, well, it doesn’t always do, does it to go into details? Anyway, I’ve had a night of it, and now I’ll have to report to the Doctor. I’ll expect there’ll be trouble, but he’s a good sort.”

He was AWOL after his romantic night out but seized the opportunity to ask a then-uniformless British intelligence officer whether he could become his batman.

“Why don’t you put in for me as your batman …  you haven’t got one yet, have you? I’m fifty-three years old, but when this bloody foot  of mine’s all right again I’ll be able to look after you.”

Mackenzie asked that he come to this Hotel after visiting the doctor, but despite attempts to find him, they never met again.

“It has always been a regret that he never became my batman, for he has knocked about all over the Pacific and would have been a splendid companion.”

Major John North (1894 – 1973) served in France and Belgium in 1917-18 in the Northamptonshire Regiment. Trained as a lawyer, he was a novelist and journalist and with the London Press Exchange in 1922 and became its Director, 1937.  In 1939 he was appointed to the General Staff, War Office; Allied Force HQ, North Africa, 1943; War Office, 1944. He wrote the official North West Europe volume in HMSO series of short military histories of Second World War among many other books

Sir Compton Mackenzie  (1883-1972) was a Scottish nationalist and prodigious author of more than 100 books including the popular novels Whisky Galore and Monarch of the Glen.  Gallipoli Memories was published in 1929. Three other books by Mackenzie deal with his military/anti-espionage activities in Greece – including Greek Memories (1931), which was banned for disclosing the existence of MI6, among other sins.

In Gallipoli Memories he relates a number of wry anecdotes of the Australians he met while serving as an intelligence officer at Gallipoli.

I like this one:

‘Outside a dugout beside the path a couple of tall; Australians were sitting with nothing on but shorts. One of them was holding up the pannikin that held his restricted allowance of water.

“Now, if I was a mucking canary,” he was murmuring pensively, “I might have a bath in this.”’

And this:  ‘A ludicrous incident occurred when the preliminaries were being discussed by various officers of high rank on both sides. They were gathered in a tent on the beach at Anzac, those Brass-hates and Beys, all of them probably feeling a little more anxious than usual to uphold the dignity of their respective nations, when suddenly the flap was lifted at the  back and a New Zealand or Australian batman put his head through to call out in a voice of indignant contempt: “Heh! Have any of you mockers pinched me kettle?”

Mackenzie goes on to describe the splendid appearance of Australian troops  – ‘Their beauty, for it really was heroic, should have been celebnrated in hexameters not headlines. As a child I used to pore for hours over those illustrations of Flaxman for Homer  and Virgil which simulated the effect of ancient pottery. There was not one of those glorious young men I saw that day who might not himself have been Ajax or Diomed, Hector or  Achilles …’

And more about their ‘almost complete nudity, their tallness and majestic simplicity of  line, their rose-brown flesh burnt by the sun and purged of all grossness by the ordeal through which they were passing …

(Gallipoli Memories pp 80-1)

What was I saying about classical opiates?